Hacking energy: low-tech “jugaad” energy innovation gives high-tech a run for its money

Interview with Jaideep Prabhu

Jawaharal Nehru Professor of Business and Enterprise at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University

Location: United Kingdom; India

“There is no shortage of ingenuity”.

Jaideep Prabhu is the Jawaharal Nehru Professor of Business and Enterprise at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University, and he directs the university’s Centre for India and Global Business. In 2012, along with his coauthors Navi Radjou and Simone Ahuja, he published Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth, which has been translated into multiple languages. What he’s learned about jugaad has convinced him that Western companies have a lot to learn from entrepreneurs and businesses in emerging economies.

The contrast between corporate research and development—“R&D” for short—and jugaad, or “hack” innovations, couldn’t be more stark. One sort is propelled by teams of scientists and engineers, with nondisclosure agreements, ample funding, and organizational hierarchy. It can result in products that are over-engineered, late to market, and costly. The other can be accomplished by just one or a few individuals, working with little money or support. These hacks may solve a local problem, but may be hard to disseminate or scale up. In 2008, Professor Jaideep Prahbu began to be interested in how innovation happens in emerging economies, where entrepreneurs and businesses have fewer resources. Studying innovation in India, where he grew up, Prahbu began to understand that innovative solutions were typically improvisational and inclusive, and accomplished with little money or other resources.

In his publications and his lectures, Prabhu details many examples of jugaad innovation, and one that quickly makes the concept concrete is the story of the clay fridge. In regions with little electricity, where it’s hot and dry, people often store water in a clay pot, as evaporation works to cool the temperature of the water by as much as 8 to 10 degrees Celsius. In Gujarat, a potter named Mansukhabai Prajapati took this knowledge and extended it to create a small refrigerator, the Mitticool, which has a built-in water reservoir on top. He now has a small factory that employs local women to produce the refrigerators, which are sold for an affordable price of 2,500-3,500 rupees. It is an elegant solution to the problem of keeping food cool and fresh.

Jugaad innovators, Prahbu explains, follow six principles: they 1) do more with less, including by utilizing abundant resources; 2) keep it simple (low maintenance); 3) think and act flexibly, “finding the way around the mountain”; 4) find opportunity in adverse circumstances; 5) include the margin: not only by reaching out to marginal consumers but also by incorporating people on the margins into the production of the solution; and 6) follow their hearts, as passionate persistence is necessary. The Mitticool clearly exemplifies these principles, not only because the simple off-grid fridge is made of clay, but because the enterprise itself trains and provides income to village women.

Prabhu is quick to point out that technology isn’t necessarily the solution to many problems—often, what’s needed is a different approach to financial issues, or social concerns, or operational shortcomings. Harish Hande, with a PhD in environmental engineering, wanted to bring solar electricity to remote villages in the state of Kamataka, India. One issue there, he found, was not just that people didn’t have access to banks but also that they conceived of their spending on a day-to-day basis. Prabhu tells the story of how the lightbulb went on for Hande when he was talking to a woman selling fruit from a cart. She told him: 300 rupees a month for solar was too much; the most she could spend was 10 rupees a day. Hamde realized that he would have to “work backwards,” as Prabhu put it: people saved and spent on a daily basis, so the costs of solar installations would have to be paid in that way, too. In founding Selco, Hande made sure that the financial piece of the puzzle would work for local people, and this is what he has sought to convey to those who would start similar enterprises.

“Doing more with less” might mean conceiving of the mobile phone as an abundant resource. In Kenya, Safaricom developed M-Pesa, which allows people to send and receive money by text. This has been transformative for people in places where banking infrastructure is lacking. After working on the launch of M-Pesa, Nick Hughes took that model and expanded it into M-Kopa, which allows people across East Africa to pay micro-installments on solar energy, “topping-up” their account and keeping the “juice” flowing.

These examples, Prabhu emphasizes, show that the key is to successful jugaad innovations lies in understanding problems in their local context. What are all the existing resources? What do people already have access to? And what stands in the way?

“There is no shortage of ingenuity,” Prabhu declares, but there remain the problems of dissemination and scale. How can jugaad solutions be shared, particularly across language boundaries? Organizations like Digital Green are working to distribute agricultural solutions, by making videos of field techniques and then traveling from village to village to share the videos with farmers. Prajapati shares his clay-fridge techniques with others, and encourages them to start their own factories. Hande has trained like-minded entrepreneurs to take his model back to their districts. And Prabhu himself is disseminating these solutions, and the jugaad approach, through telling such stories in his books and lectures. Rather than thinking of “scaling up,” Prabhu says, jugaad innovators focus on “scaling out.” But it is not enough to just disseminate models and information, he cautions: follow up is critical. Some hand-holding may be required for a new hack to take hold.

For more information on jugaad innovation, see Prabhu’s TEDTalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNhGbfljtq0

—Erin Martineau, writer and editor (www.emartineau.com)

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